Mexico's Hidden Heritage : British Museum Will Put Its Stored Pre-Hispanic Treasures on View in '94

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When Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari arrived in Britain for a state visit last July, he made a point of touring the British Museum, home to one of the world's greatest collections of Mexican antiquities.

What he found there proved distressing.

Despite its abundance of ancient Mexican treasures--arguably among the most important collections outside Mexico--the London museum had almost none of it on display. In fact, few of the artworks and artifacts reflecting the rich pre-Hispanic culture of the region have ever been placed on permanent exhibition at the museum, which draws nearly 7 million visitors a year.

No room for them, the president was told.

"When he realized there was no space at the British Museum for Mexican exhibitions, he said it was a very regrettable thing," said Raul Ortiz, cultural attache at the Mexican Embassy in London. "It is the patrimony of mankind. For anyone coming to Britain, one of the first places they visit is the British Museum."

In a move to bring his country's heritage out of storage, Salinas raised $1.5 million from a half-dozen leading business figures in Mexico to be donated to the British Museum for the construction of a permanent "Mexican Gallery."

Set to open in late 1994, the gallery, which will contain display cases that could hold as many as 500 objects, will take over some of the space now occupied by the adjoining British Library, which will move to larger quarters nearby.

The museum's Mexican holdings include ancient manuscripts, one of the best collections of 14th-Century Huastec statues, Mayan sculptures depicting royal ceremonies, 14th-Century Mixtec gold filigree jewelry and what is likely the world's greatest trove of 15th-Century Aztec turquoise mosaic masks and animal effigies. (A few pieces from British collections were included in the "Splendors" show seen at the L.A. County Museum in 1991, but none were from the British Museum.)

The collection has been amassed since the museum's formation in the 18th Century, with the majority of pieces acquired in the 19th and early 20th centuries by purchase, donation and field collection.

The most important part of the Mexican antiquities collection came from the holdings of 19th-Century British industrialist Henry Christy, donated in the 1860s by the administrators of his estate. Christy's collection included eight of the museum's nine 15th-Century Aztec turquoise mosaics. Many other of the museum's holdings are said to have been in Europe since the conquest of the New World.

Although the museum has no figures on the number of items in the collection, the total ranges in the thousands, with about 1,000 objects said to be of exhibition quality. Less than two dozen have ever been put on permanent display, however.

Mexican officials realize that the new gallery "will give them a good chance of making people aware of Mexican history," says Elizabeth Carmichael, head of the museum's Latin America department.

But while the bilateral arrangement has been greeted enthusiastically in both countries--Salinas and Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, attended the signing of the cultural agreement in Mexico City last month--it also has been a reminder of the European perspective traditionally placed on world history.

The masses who tour the British Museum find great halls containing thousands of artifacts from the bedrock of European culture--especially the civilizations of Greece, the Roman Empire and the Middle East. For the rest of the world's heritage though, there's something of a visibility problem.

Treasures from Mexico, the rest of the Americas, Africa and much of Asia--most of the world outside Europe, that is--have been lumped together by the British Museum under the label "ethnography." The museum's ethnography department is based at a far more modest British Museum outpost called the Museum of Mankind, which is primarily devoted to temporary exhibits.

While the Museum of Mankind has mounted acclaimed exhibitions--its current (and temporary) Mexican Day of the Dead display has been particularly well-received--the decision to treat non-European cultures differently has drawn growing criticism.

"All the primitives go into the Museum of Mankind," says Dr. Joanna Overing, a social anthropologist at the London School of Economics. "I personally think it's Draconian and outdated."

In a newspaper article headlined "Dustbin of History," archeology writer David Keys praised the British Museum's decision to open a Mexican gallery, but noted the cultural damage caused by the museum and other institutions that have fostered a Eurocentric view of world history.

As a result of that perspective, he wrote, there has been a failure "to produce the broad appreciation of other cultures so vital to increasing racial tolerance and international understanding. One of the difficulties is that the ancient civilizations of black Africa and the Americas are still regarded by most museums as part of ethnography--not archeology or history.

"So while regions of classical European or Middle Eastern civilization have their own curatorial departments at the British Museum, the Inca, the Maya, the Aztecs, Zimbabwe, Benin and aboriginal Australia are grouped together under ethnography, as if their cultures somehow needed to be approached in a different way."

Overing of the London School of Economics is among those questioning whether it is even appropriate for the British Museum to possess the patrimony of other nations--particularly when so much of it is hidden away.

"Give it back," says Overing, who specializes in South American cultures. "What good is it doing in a bunch of drawers?" But while the Mexican government has been known to attempt to reclaim its heritage in some instances, a spokesman for the museum said that no such moves were made in this case, a fact that the Mexican Embassy's Ortiz confirmed.

Mexico is not the first country to buy its way into greater prominence at the British Museum. The Japanese government made a substantial contribution and helped organize private funding for the creation of three connecting Japanese galleries at the museum. They opened in 1990 at a cost of nearly $10 million.

The government of South Korea is now also involved in raising $1.8 million for the creation of a Korean gallery.

"The national museums in the United Kingdom are not well off," says Carmichael of the British Museum. "So such sponsorship is appreciated and needed. It's unusual, but it's very much the name of the game these days."

Besides donating the financing for the new gallery, Mexico also is supplying the design. Teodoro Gonzalez De Leon, one of the country's top architects, already has submitted basic design plans for the project.

"The inaugural exhibition (at the new Mexican Gallery) will be pre-Hispanic, based on the British Museum's own collections," Carmichael said. "But we do hope that in the exchanges that ensue there will be loans from Mexico."

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